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Kazakhstan: Devaluation, Demonstrations, and Lacy Underwear

February 15, 2014 protest in Almaty. Photo by Damir Otegen, used with permission.

February 15, 2014 protest in Almaty. Photo by Damir Otegen, used with permission.

For the first time in recent memory, a protest was held in Kazakhstan. Few believed that this demonstration would actually take place: in the past, despite messages summoning citizens to the streets to express their civic views, many protests have failed to materialize. This time the protest was a reaction to the devaluation of Kazakhstan's national currency, which reduced the value of the tenge by 20% overnight. Kazakhs were shocked by the change. By lunchtime, almost all currency exchange offices, internet retailers, and supermarkets had closed to take inventory, and crowds of worried clients gathered at banks. All this took place against the backdrop of the National Bank of Kazakhstan's recent announcement [ru] about the stability of the country's economic system.

Prices began to rise significantly, while salaries remained unchanged. Effectively, everyone who held money in the national currency lost 20% of their savings. This change, in principle, was the main motivation for the February 15 protest in Almaty. Social media sites and even several news sources spread the word that a protest would take place that weekend. This protest was unsanctioned, as permission was not obtained from the Akimat, or city administration. (Permission is required for anyone wishing to organize a protest, procession, or picket line.) Furthermore, public upset over the devaluation coincided with the Customs Union's ban on the importation of lacy underwear [ru].

The main protest was set to begin at 11:00am on February 15th, but amusingly, Kazakhstan's infamous habit of chronic tardiness was in evidence here as well, with the first protesters appearing at the site only at 11:30. The activists clamored for their rights rather timidly, but a few protesters stood out from the crowd: those who refused to be indifferent to their own fate, and those who didn't fear consequences – or believed that the truth was on their side.

Interestingly, many bloggers, journalists, and members of the media were present at the protest. All appeals, actions, and emotions were carefully recorded, filmed, and photographed. Local authorities came up with the creative approach of deploying snow plows around the area, which “coincidentally” blocked the view from the street. At first events proceeded in an orderly enough manner: the activists peacefully chanted their social slogans and the crowd stayed within the boundaries of the “peaceful protest” described in messages on social networks. Suddenly participants decided to move the protest several blocks to the Republic Square, directly across from the government administration building. The first confrontations at the scene began with the arrival of the SOBR (Special Rapid Response Unit), who, without warning, began to handcuff and detain the most active protesters. Some time later, the district prosecutor arrived and ordered protesters to go home, announcing that participants in an unlawful protest would be punished. By 3:00pm, the protest was over. A total of around thirty people were detained, some of whom were not even protesting, but simply passing by.

The site voxpopuli.kz [ru] posted a colorful and vivid photo report:

Главная тема этой и, пожалуй, многих последующих недель – это девальвация. В субботу, 15 февраля, в Алматы произошел самый масштабный на данный момент митинг против объявленной девальвации. Фоторепортаж с места событий подготовили Дамир Отеген и Виктор Магдеев, которые провели практически весь день с митингующими.

Devaluation is the main topic of this week and, most likely, the weeks to follow. On Saturday, February 15th, Almaty was the site of the largest anti-devaluation protest to date. Damir Otegen and Viktor Magdeev, who spent almost the whole day with the protesters, reported from the scene.

Participants, eyewitnesses, and interested internet users actively expressed their reactions online as well. Regular users tended to write blog posts, while protest participants posted on Facebook, which underscores the importance of the social networking site in Kazakhstan.

User tolubarman analyzes certain events taking place at the protest, paying special attention [ru] to the socioeconomic status of the main activists, which seemed incongruous considering the subject of the event:

Шуба, драгоценности, iPhone 5S и прочие блага, денег на которые, у простого человека нет. В голове сразу появляется вопрос:” Откуда у бедной женщины деньги на это все?” Кредит говорите, значит у нее должен быть соответственный уровень дохода, чтобы погашать такой кредит или же богатый муж.

Furs, jewels, iPhone 5S, and other possessions that regular people don't have the money for. You immediately ask yourself, “Where would a poor woman get the money for all this?” You might say credit, but that would mean she must have enough income to pay off that much credit… or a rich husband.

User torgaeva shares her position [ru]:

Но ввиду последних событий, пелена с моих глаз будто упала. Откровенно говоря, я ничего не потерла из-за этой девальвации потому, что у меня ничего не было.Помню, как еще в школе, на уроках НВП наш учитель, воспитывая в нас патриотизм, неустанно говорил нам: “У нас мудрое правительство, которое заботится о народе. Тенге – устойчивая валюта, которой не страшны мировые колебания, а все потому, что (вот тут внимание) НАЦБАНК ПИТАЕТ”. Эта фраза настолько въелась в мой мозг, что новость 11 февраля просто выбила почву из-под ног. Супергерой школьных лет – НАЦБАНК умер. Вместо этого людей оставили с носом, повергли в шок и обескуражили, чем тут же воспользовались все организации и магазины. И вот тут стало больно, действительно больно и обидно. С гражданами поступили как со скотом, который все стерпит и покорно примет все, что угодно. За неделю все перевернулось с ног на голову.

But in view of recent events, the veil over my eyes has disappeared. To be honest, I didn't lose anything because of this devaluation, because I didn't have anything in the first place. I remember in school, in NVP class [basic military training], our teacher, instilling patriotism in us, always used to say: “We have a wise government that cares about the people. The tenge is a strong currency that doesn't fear world fluctuations, and all because (pay attention:) THE NATIONAL BANK FEEDS IT.” This phrase was so ingrained in my mind that the news of February 11th totally pulled the rug out from under me. The National Bank, the superhero of my school years, had died. Instead of protecting the people, we ended up tricked, shocked, and discouraged, which was immediately taken advantage of by all the organizations and stores. And that's what was painful… painful and hurtful. They treated citizens like cattle that will put up with anything and submit to whatever is done to us. Within a week, everything has been turned upside down.

User zidane draws an interesting conclusion [ru]:

Итог получается парадоксальный, но закономерный: продать ресурсы страны власть  не может из-за того, что народ у нас слишком дорогой. И девальвация – это не снижение курса национальной валюты, это снижение стоимости собственного народа. Девальвация казахстанцев в казахелинцев. Вторые стоят на 20 % дешевле первых. Их и продадим в пользование транснациональным компаниям.

We end up with a paradoxical but predictable result: the authorities can't sell the country's resources because the people are too expensive. So devaluation isn't a decrease in the exchange rate of the national currency – it's a decrease in the cost of the people. Devaluing Kazakhstanis and converting them into Kazakhs [the president has suggested renaming the country Kazakh Eli]. The latter are 20% cheaper than the former. We're selling them for the benefit of transnational companies.

As a result of the devaluation, clients began to gather at banks to withdraw their money. Before the protest, word had spread via text messages and WhatsApp that small banks would soon close due to insufficient funds. One bank promised to pay 100 million tenge to whomever could find and unmask the guilty party, and within several days the General Prosecutor had tracked down and arrested a suspect who confessed to starting the rumors. User maxopolskiy spoke out [ru] on the subject: 

… это не значит, что население глупое. То, что народ больше верит провокаторам, чем правительству – проблемы правительства, и результат его “работы”.

This doesn't mean that the population is stupid. The fact that people are more inclined to believe provocateurs than the government – that's a problem with the government and the results of its “work.”

User tanusha examined the problem more deeply [ru]: 

Вот мои мысли про информационный вброс о банкротстве трех казахстанских банков. Напомню, что вчера по WhatsApp некоторым людям пришло сообщение:

«Есть инфо что объявят о банкротстве след банков второго уровня через 3 дня:
Альянс банк
Каспи банк
Банк Центр кредит
Если есть сбережение в этих банках срочно надо снимать.
Инфо вроде ЖБ (ЖБ – железобетонная, стопроцентная. – С.П.).
Влиятельные люди позвонили и предупредили.»

Какую цель преследовали заказчики информационного вброса? И, кстати, кто эти заказчики?

Здесь 2 варианта: 1) цель – экономическая, соответственно, заказчики – конкуренты (другие банки); 2) цель – политическая (дестабилизация), соответственно, заказчики – конкурентная политическая сила. Тут тоже выбор большой – от Гос.Депа до внутренних «экспериментаторов»

Если развивать вариант с политической целью, то улавливается последовательность неестественных всплесков: цирковое выступление «Блогеры, выходите!», митинг с трусами на голове (кстати, никто и не удосужился поинтересоваться, что конкретно запрещается ввозить и почему), а теперь и этот информационный вброс.

Here are my thoughts regarding the misinformation campaign about the bankruptcy of three Kazakh banks. We recall that yesterday people received the following message on WhatsApp:
“We have info about the bankruptcy of the following second-level banks within three days:
Alliance Bank
Kaspi Bank
CenterCredit Bank
If you have savings in these banks, you need to withdraw them immediately.
This info is 100% confirmed.
Influential people called and warned us.”
What was the goal of this misinformation campaign? And who ordered it?
There are two possibilities here. 1) Economic motives, meaning that the misinformation campaign was ordered by competitors (other banks). 2) Political motives (destabilization), meaning that the culprits would be competing political forces. Here there are also plenty of possible instigators, from the Department of State to internal “experimenters.”
If we develop the possibility of political motives, then we end up with a progression of bizarre vignettes: the circus act “Bloggers, come out!”, a protest full of people wearing underwear on their heads (by the way, no one bothered to find out exactly which imports are banned and why), and now this misinformation campaign.

On February 16th another protest took place in Almaty, this time consisting of only thirty people and focused on the Custom Union‘s rule prohibiting the import of lacy underwear. “Panties for Elbasy” emerged as the slogan of the event (Elbasy is the respectful name for the Kazakh president, literally meaning “Leader of the Nation”). For hygienic reasons related to fabric's capacity to absorb moisture, the regulation bans the import of synthetic underwear that does not contain at least 6% cotton.

Independent Russian television channel Dozhd [ru] reports:

После освобождения одна из активисток, Евгения Плахина, рассказала, против чего протестовала: «Я вышла с последними своими кружевными трусами, которые у нас запретят в июле 2014 года. И не только у нас — на территории всего Таможенного союза».

Еще одна участница акции, Жанна Байтелова, рассказала ДОЖДЮ, как ее забирали в полицию, и объяснила, почему на сегодняшний несанкционированный митинг вышло в три раза меньше людей, чем накануне: «Просто мы решили до маразма все довести. Сегодня мы собрались на площади, площадь огородили полицейские, сказали, что идет ремонт. Нам, к сожалению, не дали пройти к Монументу независимости. Ну, естественно, нас задержали, привезли в РОВД. Накануне вчерашнего митинга людям по WhatsApp (мессенджер для смартфонов — ДОЖДЬ) приходили сообщения, чтобы люди не выходили никуда, сидели дома, что в городе объявлено военное положение. Потом распускались слухи, что это будет митинг националистов, еще какие-то слухи распускались. Поэтому, я думаю, сегодня протестующих гораздо меньше было».

After being freed from detainment, activist Evgeniya Plaxina told us why she was protesting: “I came out in my last pair of lacy panties, which will be banned as of July 2014. And not only in our country, but in the whole Customs Union.”
Another participant, Zhanna Baytelova, told Dozhd about being detained by the police, and explained why today's unsanctioned protest drew three times fewer people than yesterday: “We decided to just take it to the extreme. Today we gathered in the square, and the area was barricaded by police, saying that it's under construction. Unfortunately, they didn't let us get to the Monument of Independence. Well, naturally, they detained us and took us to the ROVD [District Office of Internal Affairs]. The day before yesterday's protest, people got messages on WhatsApp [a messenger for smartphones--Dozhd], saying to stay home and not go out anywhere, that martial law had been declared in the city. Then rumors spread that it was going to be a nationalist protest, and there were other rumors spreading too. I think that's why there were far fewer protesters today.”

User serikzhan69 shared a detailed post on the subject [ru], including photos:

Президент Ассоциации легкой промышленности РК Любовь Худова после аргументов К.Келимбетова о том, что девальвация поможет внутреннему производству в газете Караван отметила, что «Легкая промышленность в Казахстане тяжело больна, и никакая девальвация нам не поможет. Сейчас мы обеспечиваем себя на 10 процентов. По обуви – на 1 процент. Наше состояние не позволит нам как-то выиграть от девальвации и увеличить производство. Наша страна создает рабочие места в других странах, а не в Казахстане. Мы давно просим вице-премьера Асета Исекешева сделать легпром приоритетной отраслью промышленности, как в России и Беларуси, но мы даже не включены в ФИИР-2»

Kairat Kelimbetov, Governor of the National Bank of Kazakhstan, argued in the newspaper Caravan that devaluation will help promote domestic production. The president of Kazakhstan's Light Industry Association, Lyubov Khudova, noted: “Light industry in Kazakhstan is gravely ill, and no amount of devaluation will help it. Right now the share of domestic apparel in the local market is 10%, and that of shoes, only 1%. Our current situation does not permit us to benefit from devaluation and increase production. Our country is creating jobs in other countries, not in Kazakhstan. For a long time we have been asking Minister of Industry and Trade Asset Issekeshev to make light industry a priority, like in Russia and Belarus, but we aren't even included in the FIIP-2 [Forced Industrial-Innovative Development Program].”

User MontKristov tried to unravel the problem, writing an educational post [ru]:

Если брать модные бренды итальянские, или немецкие то с ними все в порядке, там требуемые показатели в норме. Не в норме три разновидности три разновидности тканей (там гигроскопичность не превышает 4, но они редко применяются известными брендами, поэтому это собственно тоже не проблема. И собственно многие производители не видят никаких проблем в данном техрегламенте

If you take the fashionable Italian or German brands, there's no problem with them, all the required conditions are met. What's not okay are three types of fabric whose hygroscopy (ability to absorb water) is under 4%, but these are rarely used by major brands, so that isn't a problem either. And most of the producers themselves see absolutely no problem with this regulation.

Today the situation in Kazakhstan is more or less stable. Soon after the devaluation, bank leaders, deputies, and officials held several emergency meetings. In particular, Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov banned price increases on gas and food items. However, supermarkets and small stores still raised their prices 20% despite the threat of losing their license. Bank leaders continue to assure the public that they have enough money, increasing rates and holding press conferences. However, political scientists, analysts and members of the public noticed that the level of legal nihilism reached its highest peak in the last five years.

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